Photo Credit: Jacqueline Dupree
August 15, 2012, Washington, DC: So often our neighborhoods are the settings for wonderful stories. They are places where we come to appreciate simple things like the comforts of home and the traditions of families, the value of community and the rhythms of our hometowns. But our neighborhoods are also complex landscapes that evoke a whole host of emotions. They are the first places we grapple with tough subjects. They are places from which we can learn a great deal.
I recently met a woman named Reshena Johnson who spoke eloquently about the complexities of our relationships to our hometowns. Reshena is the development and operations coordinator for New Community for Children in the Shaw-Howard neighborhood of Washington, and she’s also a native of the city. Though I’ve written about the Navy Yard neighborhood in which Reshena grew up, she’s the first person I met who grew up there “Before” there was an “After.” The last residents of Reshena’s old community moved out in 2005 and the last of those buildings was demolished in 2007, the neighborhood leveled and built up again from scratch.
When I asked Reshena if she’d like to share her story, she responded quickly in the affirmative. “I would love for you to share my story on your blog,” she said. “My story is very similar to many of the people I knew growing up, but they haven’t had a forum to tell the story. I think this presents a great opportunity to be their voice.”
Photo Credit: Jacqueline Dupree
Memories of the Old Neighborhood: I’m born and raised in DC, I’m from Southeast. For me, where the stadium is, that’s the part of Southeast where I grew up. I don’t even recognize it anymore. It took me a long time to be able to ride through that area without crying because it was like my whole childhood was obliterated.
I remember going up to Joe’s as a kid or going around to Red Star and all of the stores that were there. My family lived there for a long time; we moved away to another part of the city, but we came back. I’m three generations deep in DC, so all my family’s here mostly.
They had been trying to change that area for years. The residents were really trying to fight against it because it was our home. Then crack took over and people didn’t care anyone. And that opened it up for them to come in and move everybody out. When you look at where the Navy Barracks are, that is where the notorious 501 highrise used to be.
There was an old folks highrise — you know where the parking lot is next to the school? — it used to be there, there’s only one left. There was a second one that was really tall. My uncle Boogie and his wife used to live there. That was there, and you had all the apartments and the houses — everybody knew everybody. Even today, there’s a Facebook page for people who grew up in Arthur Capper. Capper, as we call it.
Today, it’s very different. I had to tell my husband, ‘Hey stop driving me through here,’ because it was just really hard. You never know where life will take you, and now I may never be able to afford to live there. Somewhere that I grew up and was really important in my formative years.
Photo Credit: Jacqueline Dupree
When A Place Starts To Look Different: When I was growing up, it was really weird to see white people walking down the street in my neighborhood. At first it bugs you out. It was different. When we lived east of the river, we knew white people were in Northwest and we only met for shopping or dinner or something.
Now one of the things about gentrification is that even if you don’t grasp the whole concept of it, you know, ‘Okay, white people come, we go.’ That’s how it’s worked. There’s a fear there. So when you see white people in your neighborhood, you think, ‘What happens to me? Can I afford to stay here? Do I need to go somewhere else? Am I being pushed out? What’s gonna happen and how is the neighborhood gonna be different?’
When you’re the person who’s moving in, you think that people are just hostile because they don’t want you there. But there’s just so much history. And the fact that it’s happening rapidly and there’s not a dialogue being opened, it just makes it a really difficult situation. So it’s tough.
Thoughts On Raising a Family in the City: DC as it stands now, it’s very different. I was having a conversation with my husband because we were talking about how within the next few years, we’ll probably decide to have a family and buy a home. He wants to move all the way out to Calvert County, MD. I like it too. It’s near the beach and I love the beach, so I’m pretty much sold. But at first, I said, ‘You know, I’d want my kids to grow up and have the DC experience.’ There’s a unique DC experience that I had as a kid. Fast forward to now. Things are changing. And I told him, ‘The DC that exists now is not the DC that I grew up in.’ So my children would not have that DC experience. It was kind of sad. But the connection that I had to that, it doesn’t exist anymore. So there’s nothing holding me here. I’ll always be proud of my hometown, but it just doesn’t exist like it did.
Mixed Income Neighborhoods and the Value of Staying Put: Gentrification means that there’s a difference in median income. There’s a difference in being able to utilize resources. Gentrification does not allow for a truly mixed community. You could potentially have one and it could be racially diverse, but economically…
Racism is still a part of the American fabric, it always will be, but what’s inching up to it is classism. It’s always gonna be viewed as the ‘us versus them’ unless you can assure the people who are there that they will always have a place there. That they will always be able to have a home there that they can afford. And that they can stay and be a part of the change.
My husband’s mom lives in the house she grew up in. She decided to move in and stay and take it over. There’s not enough of that. That’s one of the things my husband always says: That no matter what happens, we’re keeping that house. My siblings and I, our parents now own a house in Southeast, and we all feel the same way, we’re going to keep that house in the family. That’s not something a lot of people think about. We have to make sure people are educated and they understand — that they get the emotional piece, but that they also understand the business piece. There is not enough financial literacy in poor black communities, in my opinion. We really have to start to ingrain that in our community and I don’t really know the best way to do it. The resource needs to be available. People need to know. That could really help with gentrification, people being educated, people being aware.
The city does shoulder some responsibility to stop putting economic interests before the interests of the people. And if that happens, you could see a scenario where there’s mixed income. Of course, you want to make sure that all people respect the space that they’re in, and that’s not something the city can do anything about, but if you have enough people who are really invested and saying, ‘We’re not gonna have drugs. We’re not gonna do this….’ If they start working with the police department and start community policing, if you create a real community — a real village — that will help.